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Should you put virtual desktops in the cloud?

VDI infrastructure costs cut into ROI, but you don't have to carry that burden. In part two of this tip, see the pros and cons of on-premise VDI vs. cloud-hosted virtual desktops.

The first article in this two-part series introduced the not-so-skeptical notion that virtual desktops indeed have their use cases. We began the discussion on the impacts -- both technological and budgetary -- that desktop delivery infrastructure presents. In this conclusion, we continue musing about virtual desktop delivery and ponder how virtual desktops in the cloud might make sense.

The problem with VDI isn't necessarily the virtual-ness of its desktops, but all the interconnecting pieces required to virtualize them.

The dilemma here relates to economies of scale. Consider the costs required to make the jump from physical to virtual. You need servers and storage to house those virtual desktops as they operate, the networking infrastructure that connects those servers together, as well as the additional networking that extends their reach to the Internet. Advanced management tools are required, as are provisioning automations that create each desktop, configure it appropriately, and orchestrate its delivery to the correct user on demand.

These new elements involve investments that probably aren't typical in a physical desktop environment. Each element also requires corresponding layers of management that extends beyond the requirements of simple virtualization.

In Figure 1, you can easily see the range of elements and additional activities that are required to turn a virtual machine into a fully-realized virtual desktop. It's likely that you have very few of those elements in your environment today.

Then consider the experience gap that exists with your current IT staff and the delivery infrastructure that's necessary for success. Unfortunately, experience in server virtualization is only a small piece of what you need to succeed with desktop virtualization.

As you can see, economies of scale represent a big problem (pardon the pun). All of the activities laid out in Figure 1 are required -- no matter what the scale -- but their relative effort per virtual desktop decreases as the number of desktops under management increases.

Never forget that economies of scale hurt the small, as it helps the big. It stands to reason, then, that a dedicated provider with experienced staff and a singular focus could offer hosted virtual desktops as a service. Indeed, such providers exist today. Since virtualization's resource optimizations reward smart administration, the economies of scale argument suggests that an appropriately sized hosting provider can offer virtualized desktops at an acceptable price point.

What about the risks?
Knowing you can have your virtual desktops hosted on someone else's infrastructure at an acceptable price means nothing if your data isn't protected. And those hosted desktops do users little good if they can’t access your internal resources with acceptable performance.

The right provider should deliver desktops while requiring minimal effort from your company's IT staff. That provider must also supply the necessary mechanisms to securely connect your desktops to each other and to your internal IT services. Figure 2 shows how that connection might look.

Security can be implemented through any of today's established network protocols and best practices. Encryption, authentication, authorization, firewalling, and so on -- these are mature network security tactics that are common on the Internet and should be a part of your provider relationship.

Security in multi-tenancy situations is another concern, although tools that support such relationships are maturing. These tools protect tenants from the actions of others, while facilitating the secure delivery of desktops as a service to multiple, simultaneous clients. Pay particular attention here, as our industry's conventional wisdom with these issues is still under construction.

The solution you require must also support secure connections into your internal infrastructure, again using established network protocols and techniques. The right configuration lets you keep sensitive data within your internal IT services while at rest, creating an architecture that limits exposure.

Customers must also perform due diligence to make sure the service provider guarantees performance, service and security controls via contractual service level (SLA) agreements.

Finding your good idea
What? The VDI Skeptics suggesting that moving to virtual desktops can be a good idea? Absolutely, but only with a model that fits your use case. We aren't, after all, The VDI Deniers. We simply believe that business rules come first, and technology second. Meeting the resource needs of your users can take a variety of forms, only some of which make sense for your particular business.

So, while virtual desktops might make sense for your business, owning your own virtual desktop delivery infrastructure might not. In that case, hosting providers offer a way to deliver virtualized desktops.

Read more from Greg Shields

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